Notre Dame (+3.5) at Stanford
Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California
Kickoff: 7:30 PM ET
Date: Saturday, November 28, 2015
Series: 19-10-0 Notre Dame
Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's regular season finale against Stanford.
Is Stanford the New USC?
Notre Dame and Stanford have played in some highly meaningful games in recent years. This Saturday will be the 6th straight matchup where the Cardinal come in ranked inside the Top 20 of the polls. This will also be the 5th straight game in the series where both Notre Dame and Stanford are ranked.
The Irish have been the higher ranked team in 3 out of the past 4 meetings, if you include this Saturday's matchup. In those previous two games where Notre Dame was ranked higher they ended up winning.
Getting Them Trophies
Setting aside rivalry trophies (the Cardinal have retained the Stanford Axe from Cal since 2010) Stanford has brought home a pair of Pac-12 Championships and 2 bowl trophies, including the Rose Bowl, since David Shaw took over in 2011. The Cardinal have already clinched the Pac-12 North division and will be playing in their 3rd Pac-12 Title Game in 4 years next weekend.
Toby vs. Christian
Back in 2009, Stanford running back Toby Gerhart narrowly lost the Heisman after finishing in 2nd place to Alabama running back Mark Ingram. That was the closest vote in Heisman history. In Stanford's regular season finale in '09, Gerhart ran for 205 yards and 4 total touchdowns (remember he threw for a score too) against Notre Dame.
Christian McCaffrey is averaging only 3 yards less per game on the ground and is a significantly bigger weapon (37.8 yards per game) in the passing game. The one big difference between the two Cardinal players was that Gerhart scored 28 rushing touchdowns, while McCaffrey has been giving way to Remound Wright near the goal line this year.
Things Ain't Like They Used to Be
Home Sweet Home
Much is made of Stanford's often apathetic home crowd but as David Shaw and many in Palo Alto are quick to point out it hasn't seemed to hamper their home field advantage. Since 2008, the Cardinal are 45-6 at home including 3 separate undefeated home campaigns in 2010, 2012, and 2013.
However, last season was the first since 2007 where Stanford lost more than 1 game at home, ending up 4-2 with losses to USC and Utah. The Cardinal have already dropped a home game to Oregon so if Notre Dame can win this weekend that would drop Stanford to 9-4 over their last 13 home games. The Irish have lost 3 straight in Palo Alto.
4 Players to Watch
RB Christian McCaffrey
Undeniably the bell cow for Stanford's offense this year. The sophomore spent most of 2014 as a change of pace tailback who was more of a weapon catching the ball. But towards the end of last fall McCaffrey began getting regular carries and used that momentum to win the starting job this year. Right now he's 2nd nationally in rushing yards and in most places has moved right behind Alabama's Derrick Henry as the top Heisman candidates at the running back position.
RB Bryce Love
The true freshman out of North Carolina doesn't touch the ball all that often but when he does he's been electric. Love's supporters say he has legit 4.3 speed and he's scored touchdowns from 93, 47, and 48 yards so far this season. He'll be someone to watch on end-around plays or jet sweeps. Plus, Stanford likes to use motion and get both Love and McCaffrey into the back-field together and work some option out of that look.
TE Austin Hooper
The redshirt sophomore has emerged as the go-to tight end for Stanford and will be making his 20th career start this weekend. Hooper is 3rd on the team in receptions (26) and receiving yards (379) but does lead the Cardinal with 5 touchdowns. Look for him to pair with redshirt freshman Dalton Schultz to make two tight ends that were heavily recruited by Notre Dame.
LB Blake Martinez
With Stanford's lack of beef up front they depend on senior Blake Martinez to clean up and attack the ball carrier. For the second straight year he's leading the Cardinal in tackles from middle linebacker. Over his last 24 games he's totaled 209 tackles, 11.5 TFL, and 4.5 sacks.
Grinding Down Josh Adams
I go back and forth over which 'new' injury is worse for Notre Dame, Russell or Prosise? On the one hand, you could argue Adams has proven more and may be more battle tested, especially this year, than Russell's likely replacement in Devin Butler. Still, I'm just not sure how much we can rely on Adams in this game.
Not to take anything away from him, because he's just about maxed out all we could ask of him this year, but that's my worry. Adams filled in wonderfully against Pitt when Prosise went down and he had fresh legs having only 10 carries over the previous 4 games. Since then, it's been one historic 98-yard run and 29 other carries averaging 2.8 yards per rush.
Too Much on Kizer's Shoulders
The performance of Adams may not matter as much because Kizer is likely to be the main weapon with his arm. Stanford's defense has been pretty average across the board but their pass coverage has been definitely worse than their rush defense. Kizer has yet to throw 40 passes in a game, and if the Irish sustain long enough drives, I'd bet he'll eclipse that mark on Saturday.
I'm not necessarily saying throwing a lot is a bad thing or we shouldn't do it only that's it something to watch as the game progresses and the pressure on Kizer intensifies.
Containing McCaffrey AND Hogan on the Ground
2 Sides of the Ball
Stanford brought back 4 starters from last year's offensive line beginning with senior Kyle Murphy (6-7, 301) who switched from right to left tackle this year. Next to him is senior Joshua Garnett (6-5, 321) who is considered perhaps the best guard in the country. At center, redshirt junior Graham Shuler (6-4, 285) returns as starter as does redshirt junior right guard Johnny Caspers (6-4, 300).
The only new starter is sophomore Casey Tucker (6-6, 300) at right tackle. This is a lean offensive line that's improved a lot from last year (+70 rushing yards per game from 2014) and loves to use Garnett as the pulling battering ram. Stanford also consistently uses extra offensive linemen--wearing different numbers with no nameplates--as technical eligible receivers but they are in there to block as fullbacks, h-backs, and extra attached linemen. They also move Caspers to center in short-yardage situations which is too cute by half as they lost 2 fumbles against Oregon doing this.
The Cardinal came into this season with an absolutely scary depth chart situation up front in their 3-4 scheme which became even worse once opening day sophomore nose tackle starter Harrison Phillips (6-4, 278) tore his ACL against Northwestern. That Phillips needed to gain 25 pounds during the off-season to play on the interior says a lot about the lack of depth.
As a result, Stanford has literally been using only 3 defensive linemen this year. Senior Aziz Shittu (6-3, 279) has finally overcome a career of injuries and has started every game in 2015 totaling 37 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks. Graduate transfer from Cal, Brennan Scarlett (6-4, 264) has started all but one game and has 28 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks. The third member is redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas (6-3, 271) with 31 tackles, 7 TFL, and 1.5 sacks.
Redshirt junior Nate Lohn (6-3, 270) and redshirt junior Jordan Watkins (6-5, 273) may get some brief snaps but it's pretty much a rotation of Shittu, Scarlett, and Thomas on the interior with Stanford adapting by playing both of their outside linebackers up near the line of scrimmage like this:
Those outside linebackers are redshirt sophomore Peter Kalambayi (6-3, 242) who has 45 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks, while on the others side, 5th-year senior Kevin Anderson (6-4, 244) missed 4 games in the middle of the season but is back with his 36 tackles, 8 TFL, and 2 sacks. In Anderson's absence, the Cardinal turned to redshirt freshman Joey Alfieri (6-3, 240) who has totaled 37 tackles, 6 TFL, and 2.5 sacks.
What I would give for Notre Dame's offense to be healthier and have a well stocked arsenal for this game. To me, that's the biggest talking point when breaking down this matchup.
All of Harbaugh's recruits have cycled out, a few others left school early, and a run of recent recruiting classes ranked 22nd, 13th, and 51st with only 6 defensive players over Composite .900 scores has left that side of the ball in bad shape for Stanford's standards.
Of the 16 defensive players who have started this year, 11 are players with Composite scores of .890 or less. This has particularly ravaged the secondary where all the of the starters, including nickel back Quenton Meeks, are 3-star recruits.
Here are some comments from my summer preview of the Cardinal:
Stanford is an interesting case because their track-record on defense over the last half decade has given them the benefit of the doubt from most observers that they'll simply re-load again this fall. Yet, this is clearly the biggest rebuilding effort for them since Harbaugh left, if not longer...
...So this is a season where a lot of factors are going to have to converge for Stanford to stay near their high standards. They'll need a good swath of unproven players to step up, they'll need a bunch of 3-stars to do the same to add depth, and they'll likely need an impact true freshman or two.
Stanford hasn't re-loaded on defense. After an outstanding 5-year run they've plummeted to 52nd nationally in S&P defense. Here's a pretty crazy stat that I think illustrates this point perfectly. Over a 41-game span from 2012 to 2014 the Stanford defense only allowed 6.0 yards per play or better TWICE--to Oregon (6.84) last year and UCLA (6.52) in 2012.
So far in 2015, the Cardinal have allowed 6.0+ YPP to 4 teams in USC, UCLA, and over the last two weeks, to Oregon and California. Only the Ducks average more YPP among those teams than Notre Dame so the Irish should move the ball consistently against Stanford on Saturday.
Facing Stanford's offense will be a task as they're clearly in the zone since a debacle at Northwestern to begin the season. Over their last 10 games they've scored at least 30 points and are averaging 36.2 points overall.
But, the Irish defense matches up reasonably well with this offense. This will be the most physically stout front seven the Cardinal have faced and the one defense most capable of standing up to, and even slicing past, all those pulling linemen at the line of scrimmage.
Stanford's going to get theirs in the run game. The Irish are giving up 146 yards per game on the ground to non-triple option teams and the Cardinal have been averaging 262 per game rushing since week 4. I'll be surprised if Notre Dame holds them under 180 yards but if Stanford doesn't get much more than that this could be a victory for the Irish.
Due to Notre Dame's stubborn insistence on playing 2 great downs in a row only to give up a big play (53 plays of 20+ yards, to be exact, or nearly 5 per game) it's Stanford's ability to gain big chunks outside of their typical ManBall™ formations that has me worried.
Kevin Hogan has been prone to some ineffective games through the air (Northwestern & Washington State for example) but is 7th nationally in passer rating and tied for 11th in yards per attempt. Add in Love's impressive 11.4 yards per play from scrimmage and Stanford is difficult to defend when they've got you off balance with a bunch of 4 and 5-yard runs by McCaffrey followed up by a 28-yard strike from Hogan to a tight end.
I really like Notre Dame's motivational and emotional state heading into this game. Everywhere they look there's plenty of bulletin board material available. They've just been dropped out of the top 4 in the playoffs. They know they've played under expectations recently. Now they're underdogs against a team they're ranked higher than this late in the season.
My heart says the Irish pulls this out in Palo Alto. Pissed off, re-focused, and more on the line than Stanford.
Unfortunately, in a game that is destined to be shootout-y I've got questions on Notre Dame's ability to keep pace with two freshmen (Kizer and Adams) being such a huge focus on Saturday. This is the worst Stanford defense in years--and there's a possibility Notre Dame's explosiveness on offense continues to carry the day--but I'm not sure if the Irish defense is that much better where we'll hold off one of the country's most balanced offenses.